Phil Torres talks to Sean Carroll, author of a book coming out Tuesday that I’m greatly looking forward to, The Big Picture
American culture is deeply infused with an anti-intellectual distrust of scientific knowledge, a failure to understand the nature of peer-review, and an unwavering predilection for conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.
Aside from the existential importance of understanding science, there’s also a purely aesthetic issue. The scientific worldview offers, I would argue, a far richer and more elegant picture of the cosmos than any ancient myth or grand narrative conjured up by the human imagination during the Iron Age. As Charles Darwin would put it, there is grandeur in this view of the universe. And he’s right. Consider a few nuggets of mind-boggling truths, courtesy of science’s ongoing investigation into the arcana of reality: the cosmos has no center and no boundaries. The fastest moving organism travels more than half the speed of sound — and it’s a plant. You very likely have some DNA from an ancient Neanderthal in your cells. Earth rotated faster when the dinosaurs were alive, meaning that the days used to be shorter. The universe is, in other words, an endless playground for curious minds.
I’ve posted several times about Sean Carroll; here’s a post from January 2015 with a link to a Sean Carroll talk that addresses many of his themes, with my own outline summary of key points.
In this Q&A about his new book I like his notions of “poetic naturalism” and “planets of belief”, and his answer to the question of why you don’t need God (or anything else) to serve as the “cause” for the existence of the universe. Carroll:
It’s not true that every effect has a cause! That’s just a convenient way of talking about certain features of the macroscopic world of our everyday experience, one that is not applicable to how nature works at a deeper level.
When you want to tackle questions about the fundamental nature of reality, it’s necessary to leave behind concepts of “cause and effect” and replace them with “the laws of physics.” Those laws take the form of patterns relating different parts of the universe to each other, not relationships of causality.
So a better question is: what does our best understanding of the laws of physics tell us about the origin of the universe, and why it might exist at all? The answer is “not much.” This is a case where we have to be humble. The universe might have had a beginning, or it might have existed forever, we just don’t know. There’s certainly no reason to think that there was something that “caused” it; the universe can just be.